Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper?
Is that a trick question? You have children, you have eyes, and you’ve seen the fallout from birthday parties where your kid is plied with juice, cupcakes, and cookies. This is the classic sugar rush, a burst of frantic hyperactivity followed by a predictable and emotional crash. And it seems to make sense from a scientific standpoint – sugar helps give us energy, your blood sugar spikes from the goodies, and then it drops back down. But, amazingly, studies are pretty clear that this isn’t the case.
A 1995 meta-analysis looked at sixteen quality studies that gave kids either sugar or a placebo (artificial sweetener) without the parents and researchers knowing what they had gotten.(1) A meta-analysis is a type of study that combines multiple studies to see trends that might not be apparent in a single study. The researchers found no difference in the behavior or thinking ability of the children who received the real sugar.
So why does it seem like my kids go crazy at Halloween every year and then turn into demons before passing out? One theory is that maybe they are still a bit crazy even though it’s not really the sugar that’s responsible. Adrenaline does affect our behavior, and it’s quite possible that kids get a bit of an “adrenaline rush” from the excitement of eating treats, on top of the excitement of the special event where the treats are usually served. This would explain why the effect would be the same with real sugar or artificial sweeteners – your kid gets the same adrenaline rush no matter what.
There is also some evidence that our behavior as parents is changed when we see our kids consuming sugar. Researchers in a 1994 study divided thirty-five five- to seven-year-old boys into two groups.(2) Mothers in one group were told that their boys were receiving a large dose of sugar, and the mothers in the other group were told their boys were getting a placebo. But both groups were actually given the placebo (aspartame). The mothers who believed their children were getting sugar rated them as significantly more hyperactive. They also appeared to keep their boys on a “tighter leash,” staying closer to them, watching them, and criticizing them more than the other moms. So maybe we're the ones who get all crazy with sugar!
1. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children: a meta-analysis. Wolraich, M. et al. JAMA. 1995; 274(20):1617-1621.
2. Effects of sugar ingestion expectancies on mother-child interactions. Hoover, DW et al. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 1994;22(4):501-515.